Even Donald Trump’s defenders on the right are hard-pressed to argue that he is conservative. He is, nonetheless, a kind of conservative dream candidate.
Few politicians in memory have so powerfully tapped into and expressed the conservative id, which has long yearned for a Republican politician willing to heap the verbal abuse on the Clintons and, especially, on the media that they so manifestly deserve.
Except on cable and talk radio, the conservative id tends to get smothered by the hated Republican superego, i.e., “the establishment” of campaign consultants, donors and opinion-makers who worry about things like propriety and scaring off swing voters. Since Trump has no superego keeping him in check — he doesn’t care about the political rules or personal manners — he can unleash unbridled hell on “Crooked Hillary” and the dishonest media.
At a news conference about the money he raised for veterans groups at an Iowa event earlier this year, Trump called one reporter “a sleaze” and another “a real beauty” (it wasn’t a compliment). He displayed a smash-mouth disregard for the assembled media horde that is deeply satisfying for every Republican who wishes a Bush, McCain or Romney had done the same.
They say that Trump’s garish wealth is aspirational — people think that, if they were billionaires, they would spend on all the same conspicuous consumption. For lots of Republicans, Trump’s outrageous treatment of the media is just as aspirational — if they had the opportunity to tell off Tom Llamas of ABC, or any other mainstream reporter, they would resort to all the same insults.
What is policy or knowledge compared with this moving feast of contempt for the right’s enemies? Trump could promise to nationalize the banks, and as long as he was calling a reporter a guttersnipe or retromingent every day, he’d probably still pass muster with his supporters. A central insight of the Trump campaign was captured in the philosophy inculcated in the salespeople of Trump University: “You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions — you sell feelings.”
Trump is channeling legitimate feelings. The press is biased and highhanded, and deserves to be taken down a notch. Too often, Republicans resort to a defensive crouch in the face of criticism. The conservative writer Rick Brookhiser has said of self-flagellating Republicans, “In their hearts, they know they are wrong.”
Trump knows he’s right — or at least adopts a posture of supreme self-confidence — even when he’s in the wrong. Ultimately, the media’s offense in the matter of Trump’s veterans funding was to call him on not yet having fulfilled his promise to make his own highly touted $1 million contribution, but he acts like he is a modern-day Clara Barton who just can’t catch a break from the heedless jackals of the media.
If Trump has an elemental appeal to his supporters, he also drags down the right to its lowest common denominator.
Forget the philosophers, the books, the ideas, the policies, the entire intellectual infrastructure of conservatism as it’s been developed over decades — insulting the right people is just as, if not more, important.
Forget the sermonizing about the centrality of personal probity and trustworthiness, elevated into a fever pitch during the controversies of Bill Clinton’s presidency — the cardinal virtue is sheer combativeness.
Forget the suspicion of state power and the fear that it can be wielded to punish those who antagonize people in high office — it all depends, apparently, on who is punishing whom.
During a time when conservatives are rightly consumed with preserving free speech from its left-wing antagonists, they are rallying around a man who has made an art form of shutting down critics through lawsuits real and threatened; who muses about changing libel law to make silencing unwelcome voices easier; and who wants the government to use antitrust law to crack down on a newspaper owner — Jeff Bezos — whose publication features coverage he doesn’t like.
The id may be a powerful force, but no one ever said it is pretty.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.